While not everyone in America is overjoyed at the confirmation of David Souter as a U.S. Supreme Court justice - abortion activists for example - the lopsided 90-9 Senate vote this week offers a distinct sense of relief that the country has been spared a bitter, divisive ideological fight over his appointment.
Souter will be sworn in Oct. 9 in time to join the eight other justices in the second week of the Supreme Court's new session. As always, the workload is heavy as the court must hear or reject some 4,500 cases in the coming year. The new justice will have his hands full from the start.The swift, one-day Senate action to confirm Souter - President Bush's first Supreme Court nominee - certainly is a triumph for the administration, considering that the Senate is controlled 55-45 by Democrats.
It is a tribute to Souter that he so thoroughly disarmed political critics in the earlier Senate committee hearings. He came across as moderate, thoughtful, fair and reasonable. The lack of a paper trail of judicial decisions on such explosive subjects as abortion also helped.
Some abortion advocates insisted that he commit himself regarding the abortion issue. But Souter rightly refused to promise in advance how he would vote in abortion cases. It is unreasonable to demand of any judge that he or she say ahead of time how they would rule in certain cases.
That stance - while it also made some anti-abortion people uneasy - carried the day. In the end, most senators could not justify voting against Souter based merely on some vague fear of what he "might" do or "could" do on the Supreme Court.
Souter's performance is likely to become the standard for future Supreme Court nominees. They can be expected to be coached to follow a similar pattern in responding to questions and dealing with potentially hostile senators. Of course, what worked for Souter may not be transferable to some other person, especially one with a judicial history on which foes could focus their opposition.
As long as the presidency and the Senate are controlled by different parties, the choice of a Supreme Court justice - with all the power that now goes with the office - has the possibility of turning into an ideological struggle.
At this point, it is not possible to pigeonhole Souter with any degree of accuracy. Certainly, he is less liberal than the retired Justice William Brennan whom he replaces.
History has shown that it is not possible to pin down in advance just how most justices will vote in their years on the bench. They must deal with the merits of each case, usually from their own philosophical viewpoints. Many a Supreme Court justice has turned out far differently than the sponsoring president expected.
Obviously, Souter's first written decisions will be scrutinized in detail for clues to his judicial beliefs and for hints as to how he might be expected to respond in future cases.
For the time being, the country can be thankful that it has a qualified new Supreme Court justice without having a vicious fight like the one over Robert Bork's nomination. In those bitter confrontations, everyone loses.